Do you find writing fiction intimidating? You’re not alone—and beginning with a detailed outline can make a world of difference to your novel. Writing an outline before you begin your actual book provides the opportunity to flesh out the major plot points and the overall story structure, and to determine how to develop your characters.
Let’s explore several different book outlining strategies you can use when writing a book.
What is a book outline?
A book outline is a way to organize your story idea into manageable sequences before you begin writing. This becomes the skeleton of your story. It might be a detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown of your entire book, or it might be an overall summary of the main characters, key plot points, and story structure.
Writing an outline means laying out a timeline of events that will occur in your book, including ideas for specific scenes and key character arcs. By making this the first step in your book writing process, you can save yourself a lot of trouble down the road.
Pros and cons to using a book outline
Like all tools of writing, using a book outline template comes with its advantages and drawbacks. Let’s look at some pros and cons to creating a novel outline and see if it’s the right tool for you.
Benefits to using a detailed outline
Here are some of the great reasons to write a book outline.
Is it counterintuitive to think an extra step will save you time in the long run? If you create a book outline before you begin, you’ll find the process of writing your first draft goes a lot faster.
This is because you don’t have to spend as much time figuring out what’s going to happen next or backtracking over plot holes that don’t make sense.
Highlights the big picture
A novel outline is a great tool for laying out the underlying themes and character development of your story. It gives you a bird’s eye view of the events of your plot and the way they shape your characters.
This way you can decide where you want your main character to begin, what you want them to learn on their journey, and where you want them to end up and have those pieces in place before you begin writing.
Prevents writers’ block
Dealing with writers’ block is the absolute worst, and often it happens because we don’t know where our story is going next. Sometimes the only way to get back on track is to work backwards.
When you work with a book outline, you won’t get stuck because you’ll already have a predetermined chain of events in place. The first draft is just about putting those pieces together.
Disadvantages to using a book outline
Now, here are a few of the drawbacks you might experience in the outline process.
Can be limiting
The downside is that a book outline can sometimes impede the process of discovering as you go. Part of writing a fiction book is learning surprising new things a bit your settings, conflicts, and characters along the way.
If you’re working from an outline, you may have to decide whether to deviate from your outline or sacrifice the discovery that you’ve made.
Might read as inauthentic
The direction a story takes can surprise us, and sometimes writers have to corral their characters into place based on the plot choices they’ve already made.
For example, if you decided in your plot outline that the antagonist needs to sacrifice themself at the end for the greater good, you may arrive at that moment and realize it feels really out of character. Your readers will notice that these characters are making choices in service to the plot, rather than the truth of the story.
Encourages formulaic writing
Many successful authors use the outlining method, particularly ones who write longstanding series of genre fiction—for example, romances or mysteries.
The problem is that by using the same novel outline template every time, the books can start to all sound the same. After a while, your readers will be able to predict what happens simply by following a familiar structure.
Are book outlines only for fiction writers?
Writing a nonfiction book? You’ll find a book outline super helpful, too. Writing a nonfiction book outline before you begin can help you organize your ideas and present them in an engaging, linear way. Why not check out our detailed lesson on outlining a nonfiction book?
How to outline a book: 7 different approaches
When you begin writing a fiction book outline, consider how much detail you want to have in place before you begin. For example:
If you already have a strong central idea of your novel’s plot, and you want room to discover new hurdles as you go, you may only need a rough outline to outline the beginning, middle, and end of your story arc.
If you have a story idea but need to flesh out some key details, writing a synopsis, or chapter overview, can assist you in discovering the main points of your story. This style of outline gives you a helpful roadmap while still leaving plenty of room for flexibility if you want to make changes during the writing process.
If you plan to write a complex story with many subplots, moving parts, and foreshadowing, an in-depth, chapter-by-chapter outline may be right for you.
Let’s look at a few approaches to creating your own book outline from start to finish.
1. Start from the beginning
Often, a great idea for a story comes from the inciting incident—the moment when everything changes forever. If you have a clear idea of where your story begins, try making a list of possible events that could emerge from that incident.
This plot outline approach works well if you have a strong idea for a character, and perhaps the main conflict, but are still unsure of how the story will resolve in the end.
This outlining method is useful if you want to try out different possibilities, and catch any problems or inconsistencies within those possibilities, before committing to a rough draft.
2. Start from the ending
Starting your plot outline from the end is a great approach if you have an idea of the main theme or moral of the story and you already know how you want your character to end up at the resolution. This is sometimes called a reverse outline.
For example, maybe you know the key lesson your protagonist needs to learn, but you’re just not sure how to get them there.
Beginning with the end of the book allows you to work backward and discover the main plot points and challenges that your characters will need to experience in order to reach their resolution.
3. Start with character development
Character-driven plots are a great book outline strategy. When you create a fiction outline based on your character’s journey, your plot and story naturally take shape.
Outlines based on character arcs are structured by following the events that allow your character to learn and grow. These types of stories follow the protagonist’s driving needs, setbacks, choices, and ultimate sacrifice.
When you outline a novel this way, the events of the plot tend to feel more organic and fluid because they’re coming from a place of human need.
4. Create a mind map
A mind map is a great way to visually represent your entire story on one page. Mind maps also give you an incredible amount of flexibility, as your outline won’t necessarily be linear. Using a mind map allows you to creatively choose which ideas and details to introduce once you start writing your story.
To create a story map, start with a blank page and write down any scenes you have in mind for your book. They might not be in chronological order yet, and they might only be snapshots you have in mind rather than fully formed scenes.
You probably already have more of your novel in your head than you think you do—a mind map lets you see what these disparate ideas look like on paper so you can work on finding ways to connect them all together. They might even trigger new ideas!
The mind map is similar to the snowflake method, which is an organic, foolproof way of coming up with a story. You can learn more about using the snowflake method in our detailed lesson here.
5. Create a storyboard
Are you a visual learner? A storyboard is a linear, visual representation of a sequence of events and is commonly used for film and comic books. Rather than writing down your ideas in words, this involves using images to plan out your story.
Typically, a storyboard template includes sequential boxes that allow you to draw simple illustrations of the scene of your novel with a space for notes for the scenes and characters underneath. You can draw a traditional storyboard by hand, or use free storyboard templates online.
6. Use a pre-existing story structure
One of the most reliable ways to outline a novel is to use a story outline that’s been proven to work. This could be something like the three-act structure, the five-act structure, Freytag’s pyramid, the 8-point story arc, and so forth.
Sound confusing? Don’t worry—we have easy, step-by-step guides for each of these story structures, and tons more, in our writing academy!
The benefit to using story structures like these is that they mirror our natural storytelling instincts. That’s why writers return to them again and again.
7. Use a familiar story archetype
Story archetypes are a great place to begin your book outline, and there are near-limitless choices to choose from. One famous example is the Hero’s Journey, a classic story archetype that takes your protagonist through a series of twelve stages to reach their goal.
Using the Hero’s Journey template is a quick way to identify the necessary elements and stages that must occur within the plot of your book so your character can transform and overcome the conflicts they encounter.
Story archetypes are also a great resource if you’re not sure what direction you want your story to take—you can try dropping your protagonist in a range of different story archetypes to see which feels like the best fit.
Questions to answer with your book outline template
Before you start writing, your novel outline should answer the following questions:
What’s the main conflict and what’s at stake?
Who are your key characters and how do they grow and change?
What resolutions do you need to include, and how will you get there?
What is the timeline and sequence of events?
What do your characters—and your readers—learn by the end of the story?
By answering these key questions during your book outlining process, you’ll have an easier time powering through that first draft all the way to the final chapter.
Outlining kickstarts the writing process
Every writer’s creative process is different, and the extent to which you outline a novel depends on how much guidance you need as you go. For many writers, an outline helps them write faster and more confidently than plowing ahead blind.
Don’t forget: your book outline is meant to be a tool, not a prison! Your story is allowed to change as you write, and your characters may surprise you. But if you find working within a solid structure helps you focus your ideas, an outline template might be just what you need to get your creative gears moving.